Overview:

God regulates slavery instead of banning it, so he must approve—or does he? Perhaps Jesus can rescue God’s good name by reinterpreting the Old Testament.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Here’s an interesting angle on the debate about biblical slavery. Just because God regulated a practice in the Old Testament, this argument states, that doesn’t mean that God approved.

I’m responding to a recent article, Did God Condone Slavery? by Amy Hall of the Stand to Reason ministry. She notes that Jesus sometimes updates the Old Testament with new moral rules because Israelite society back in the Old Testament was immature. Here is Matthew 19:3–6.

Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? … Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Biblical marriage

Be careful—biblical marriage is polygamy. Abraham had two wives, Jacob had four, and Solomon had 700. God said to David, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more” (2 Samuel 12:8). There are a few caveats, but in general God is fine with polygamy.

This appeal to a maturing society is just a transparent attempt to paper over the Bible’s embarrassing contradictions.

Paul is surprisingly unsupportive of what evangelicals call “natural marriage”:

It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman…. To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do (1 Corinthians 7:1, 8).

If you want to excuse the Bible because it’s a reflection of the culture of the time, I can understand that. But then don’t insist that the Old Testament’s bluster about homosexuality or human rights or chastity are binding today.

Jesus rationalizes his new divorce rule

Hall continues the passage from Matthew:

“Why then,” [the Pharisees] asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” [a reference to Deuteronomy 24:1]

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” 

So God gave Moses a permissive rule about divorce and Jesus overrode that with a stricter rule (only the wife’s adultery permits divorce—see Matt. 19:9). Now show me the parallel with slavery. God legislated slavery for life (Leviticus 25:44–6) and gave the rules for beating slaves (Exodus 21:20–21), but where does Jesus override that with new rules? Your argument is that the Bible can change its rules, but you haven’t shown that it did in the case of slavery.

The Bible is contradictory

And consider the consequence of your argument. It shows that the Bible is contradictory. I agree, but do you really want to go there? Christianity from its birth in Judaism to the present continues to evolve. God gives the rules for divorce in Deuteronomy, and more than 500 years later in Matthew, Jesus gives different rules. This is how manmade religions work. It’s not surprising that a series of books documenting changing ideas over centuries don’t harmonize.

If God gave different rules for slavery back then, Jesus tells us, that was because the people were hard hearted. Does the new rule for divorce mean that the Jews have matured? But why would God need to wait for the Israelites to become mature enough to accept this new message? If they could handle the Moses version of divorce, they could handle the Jesus version. To take another example, God didn’t dribble out the Ten Commandments because they were too difficult for the Israelites to handle. They went live on one day, and the death penalty was the punishment for breaking most of them. There was no need for a centuries-long grace period.

Society must mature?

This appeal to a maturing society is just a transparent attempt to paper over the Bible’s embarrassing contradictions. Teleport an Israelite baby from 3000 years ago to the present, in a Western society, and it would adapt to Western morality like a modern baby in that society. Or imagine the reverse: God takes Western morality and imposes those rules on the Israelites of 3000 years ago like he did with the Ten Commandments. God never said that society needed to mature—he imposed rules, and the Israelites had to deal with them. Those rules could be Iron Age morality or, just as easily, modern Western morality.

Related: Contradictions in the Bible? No, It’s Progressive Revelation!

Consider the structure of this argument. Divorce is defined in an embarrassing way in the Old Testament, but luckily it’s redefined in the New. Slavery is also embarrassing in the Old Testament. That’s not corrected in the New, but the divorce precedent provides an opening to slip in some modern morality as a correction.

The first problem is that this opens the door for anyone to reinterpret the Bible to suit their fancy. The Bible becomes a mirror, and today’s 45,000 denominations of Christianity show the consequence of that.

Second, if you’re going to impose modern society’s view of slavery onto the Bible, why stop there? Why not apply modern society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage or abortion on the Bible, too?

Continued in part 2.

The holocaust happened and
presented an incontrovertible proof
that Yahweh is dead.
Even if he had existed once,
he too perished in the gas chambers.

— Vitaly Malkin

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...